When movie director Jon M. Chu wrote a letter to Coldplay, asking to use the song “Yellow” in his 2018 film “Crazy Rich Asians,” he explained what reclaiming the word “yellow” meant to him as an Asian American: although the word is commonly used as a racial slur, in the song, “yellow” is used to describe beauty. And singer and songwriter Katherine Ho’s sweet, lilting voice is nothing short of beautiful.
With Mandarin lyrics laid over a familiar Coldplay song of the same name, the song has become symbolic of the Asian American experience for some.
As a Chinese American, Ho says, “The cultural hybridity of the song kind of represents what it means to be an Asian person living in America; a beautiful mix of both cultures.”
Music by Asian artists, such as the music collective 88rising, has been a way for Asian Americans, including Ho, to reconnect with their heritage. Formerly known as CXSHXNLY, the New York-based mass media company has been described by founder Sean Miyashiro as a “hybrid management, record label, video production, and marketing company.” Its unique position as a culture-based talent agency has allowed it to cultivate a brand that celebrates Asian heritage. The company’s name comes from the symbol “88,” which means “double luck” in Chinese culture.
Although Ho nearly gave up her dream of pursuing a music career because she “didn’t really see a lot of Asian people going into the arts,” that story is entirely different today. After becoming an overnight sensation with the release of “Yellow,” Ho, now a junior studying biology at USC, found continued comfort and pride in her heritage through USC’s East Asian a cappella group, Trogons, and derived inspiration from 88rising.
Since 2019, 88rising has been a way of connecting international and American members in Trogons, USC’s East Asian a cappella group. With songs like “Midsummer Madness” — composed of half Chinese and half English lyrics — 88rising has been an important bridge in the group, and eventually, an important influence for Ho.
Even after the fame that “Yellow” brought her, Ho was still just a 20-year-old college student who loved listening to Taylor Swift in her dorm room. Although she had begun to establish her presence in pop music as a contestant on Season 10 of “The Voice” and attended A Cappella Academy — a singing camp founded by a former member of Grammy-winning a cappella group Pentatonix — three times, she was in the difficult process of rewriting her entire musical narrative.
“I want that Asian American identity part of myself to be interwoven into my music somehow,” Ho said. She began listening to more music by Asian artists, but struggled to figure out where exactly she fit in. To connect her heritage and music, Ho auditioned for Trogons after seeing their on-campus performance of 88rising members Higher Brothers and Phum Viphurit’s “Lover Boy.”
“I wanted to join Trogons because I kind of had this panic moment of like, ‘Oh my gosh, I am such a bad Asian American,’” Ho said. “I don’t know anything about Asian culture, and I’ve kind of just been whitewashed my whole life.”
After joining the group, she fell more in love with 88rising’s music and message. “‘Midsummer Madness’ was my first song that I really fell in love with after I learned that we were going to do it for Trogons,” Ho said. “I thought it was such a bop, first of all, but I also thought it was so cool that there were those Chinese rap sections, and it was so cool to see this pop song that I definitely would have loved in high school and love now too, but it was by Asian artists.” Ho sang the English chorus of the song in performances with Trogons last semester, while other members took up the English and Chinese rap verses.
For many Asian Americans, 88rising is the first time they have seen themselves represented in mainstream music. The company brings together Chengdu-based hip-hop group Higher Brothers, Indonesian rapper Rich Brian and K-pop star Jackson Wang. While all of 88rising’s artists are Asian, artist manager Ollie Zhang says “identity is an unspoken part” of the artists’ brands. “It’s definitely something that binds us together and we want to continue to promote that, but we don’t necessarily have to speak on it all the time, because it’s apparent,” he said.
88rising’s success has proved that Asian artists can also make huge breakthroughs in the popular music industry. In 2018, 88rising artist Joji became the first Asian-born artist to top the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart with his debut studio album “BALLADS 1.” In January this year, 88rising announced their own special stage at Coachella, “Double Happiness,” where fan favorites like Rich Brian, Niki and Joji would be performing. “[Rich Brian] toured North America twice and has done several European tours, Australian tours,” Zhang said. “He’s put in the work ethic of a touring artist and proven that he deserves that spot to be at Coachella.”
Searching for roots and seeking the soul
Many college a cappella groups, including USC’s Asli Baat, mash up popular songs from their native countries with American songs, bringing the artistic creations to big competitions like the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. Some groups perform 88rising songs as a way to show that mainstream pop can come from Asian artists and also appeal to American and Asian crowds.
Aaron Sha serves as the vice president of USC Trogons, arranged “Lover Boy” and “Midsummer Madness” as a way to introduce Chinese-English fusion music into the repertoire, after observing South Asian a cappella groups like Penn Masala at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I think in a way that’s what 88rising is trying to do, they try to bring this kind of taste of their culture into the American mainstream by kind of fusing it through music,” Sha says. “Obviously pushing the Asian narrative is good, but I think for them pushing the music narrative is more important.”
Cultural identity is at once at the forefront of and separate from 88rising’s music. “I think they were just lucky in general. They kind of found themselves in the age where like, being Asian American isn’t looked down upon anymore,” Sha noted. “88rising just kind of fit into this wave of Asian American influence with ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘The Farewell’ in Hollywood getting a lot of press too.”
88rising founder Sean Miyashiro has a knack for catching on to trends early. “Sean also has a great intuition for identifying talent that stands apart from the crowd,” Ollie Zhang wrote in an email. Although Miyashiro is the CEO of the company, he also serves as each artist’s primary manager.
Indonesian rapper Rich Brian gained popularity in 2016, a year after the company was founded, after they released a video of famous rappers’ reactions to his breakout song “Dat $tick.” In the four-minute video, which has gained over 21 million views, Desiigner, 21 Savage, Tory Lanez and more deemed the then-16-year-old rapper “the hardest of all time.”
Now one of 88rising’s biggest artists, Rich Brian’s second studio album “The Sailor” was more directly tied to cultural themes, and even features a song titled “Yellow” for similar reasons as Ho’s. “He and Sean decided to make that album speak very directly about his experience as an immigrant to the U.S. and talk about his Asian identity and talk about what he wants to represent to other Asian immigrants around the world,” Zhang said.
The advent of “Head in the Clouds,” 88rising’s own music festival, has gained the clout of Coachella in the Asian community. For Asian Americans, seeing people from the same backgrounds on big stages like Coachella and in their own sold-out festival is unprecedented and inspiring. Sha attended the festival both years since its inception, and said they “nailed it on the head.”
“Something that really impresses me [about 88rising founder Sean Miyashiro] is his marketing abilities. He jumped on the TikTok train a couple months before it really blew up, and he got ‘Indigo’ and ‘Midsummer Madness’ really popular on that platform,” Sha said. 88rising’s presence on up-and-coming social media platforms like TikTok supplement their fan interactions on Twitter and Instagram.
Making an impact and inspiring a generation
On May 6, 2020, 88rising hosted a 5-hour online concert in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Hosted by rapper Dumbfounddead and featuring Asian artists including Keshi, mxmtoon, beabadoobe and Loona, the concert raised over $28,000 for Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Although the event was announced only a week in advance, over 3 million viewers around the world tuned into the livestream, which was hosted on YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and Twitch.
Although “Asianness” isn’t always the focus of 88rising’s music, it plays a big role in their branding. Previously, the company collaborated with San Francisco-based milk tea chain Boba Guys for a special “Head in the Clouds” drink and merchandise in the month leading up to the festival. And at the second Head in the Clouds festival, popular foodie event 626 Night Market brought Asian food vendors to the scene.
The company has also taken more direct measures to support the Asian community. In early May, 88rising hosted a five-hour online concert called “Asia Rising Forever” in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Hosted by rapper Dumbfoundead and featuring Asian artists including Keshi, mxmtoon, beabadoobe and LOONA, the concert raised over $28,000 for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to achieving equal rights for Asian Americans. Although the event was announced only a week in advance, over 3 million viewers around the world tuned into the livestream, which was hosted on YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and Twitch.
A moment from the second Head in the Clouds festival captured the purpose of the benefit concert, and was replayed during the livestream. During her set, Indonesian singer NIKI said to the crowd, “As an Asian female, I do not take this day and this stage for granted. My hope is that above everything else today, that you feel heard, you feel understood, but most of all that you feel represented.” She opened her set with the Indonesian national anthem, in honor of its independence day.
21-year-old NIKI is only six months older than Ho, and is Ho’s favorite act from 88rising. She is best known for her soulful songs about love and relationships, like “I Like U,” “lowkey” and “La La Lost You.” Ho called NIKI “one of [her] biggest role models,” saying, “she holds the torch of representing Asian and Asian Americans too, but her music isn’t necessarily about like, ‘look at me I’m Asian American,’ it’s just music that everyone can enjoy.
“Because of my song ‘Yellow,’ people kind of think that I am part of the whole Asian American wave of music and I think they kind of expect me to put out stuff that’s in Mandarin or have original music in Mandarin,” Ho said. “I don’t really know what to do with it, because I don’t want to totally ignore ‘Yellow’ [and] do my own thing either. But at the same time, I don’t want it to prevent me from creating art I want to create, too.”
Finding the balance between honoring her heritage and making the music she meant to create can be a struggle. But a year after “Crazy Rich Asians,” Ho took a leap of faith and released her debut single “Bellyaches,” a heartfelt pop love letter to her closest supporters. Next, her voice will appear on the original soundtrack for “Let’s Eat,” an animated short film about a Chinese American mother and daughter.
“As long as I’m true to myself and I create art that I’m happy with, then I don’t need to worry too much about crafting this image of myself as being an Asian American artist,” Ho said. Much like 88rising, she wants her music to be the focus rather than her culture.
With its diverse group of powerful solo artists including Rich Brian, Joji and NIKI and strong marketing presence, 88rising has demonstrated how blending Asian and Western music, style and language can still create hits on the radio. Through and through, 88rising’s artists have proved that they deserve their spot on the charts while still paying homage to their roots, inspiring a new generation of Asian artists, including Ho.
“After watching Crazy Rich Asians, singing this song and growing as a person in general since starting college, I truly have never been prouder in my life to be Asian American than I am now,” Ho said.
*Disclaimer: the author of this article is the former President of USC Trogons.